Let the history books reflect that Sunday night, first lady Jill Biden stepped off Air Force One wearing a Philadelphia Phillies jersey and flashing a grin that seemed to suggest that there’s going to be a lot of trash talking around the White House.
Like her entire hometown of Philadelphia, Jill Biden has been having an incredible couple of weeks.
There she was at the Bidens’ vacation house in Rehoboth Beach, Del., on Sunday, erupting in cheers as Bryce Harper hit a home run that secured the Phillies’s Game 5 win against the San Diego Padres and propelled them into the World Series, where they will face off against the Houston Astros.
Just how big of a sports fan is the first lady? Harper hit his home run around 5:50 p.m. The game ended with a Padres pop fly to right field around 6:10 p.m. The Bidens — conveniently — didn’t get in the presidential motorcade to drive to the airport and head back to Washington until 6:50 p.m. (According to the first lady’s press secretary, Vanessa Valdivia, that departure time was planned.)
The weekend before, she’d spent part of her Saturday glued to the Phillies Game 4 clincher in their earlier series against the Braves from her private cabin on Executive One Foxtrot, as she flew from a day of breast cancer awareness events in Fort Lauderdale to two campaign stops for struggling Democrats in Orlando.
And it’s not just baseball. The night after the Braves game, there she was again, standing on a football field in her hometown, handling the coin toss and singing the Philadelphia Eagles fight song before a crowd of 67,000 as her team beat the Dallas Cowboys, rolling to a sixth win in their undefeated season.
In these frantic final weeks before the midterm elections, the Philly sports fanatic seems to be running her own campaign to remind America that the Bidens are still a couple you’d want to have a beer with. She’s taken over her husband’s role as the administration’s cheerful, uncontroversial Everyperson — just as Democrats are desperate for any kind of uplift, in an environment when President Biden has become the target that Republicans blame for inflation, and has lost much of the goodwill he once had as lovable, gaffe-prone, Amtrak Joe.
Just as sports can cut through that awkward political conversation at your Thanksgiving table, so can the first lady’s love of the Phillies be a unifying force. Partisan politics may be tearing the country apart, but if there’s one thing many Americans can agree on, it’s that Philadelphians — even Jill Biden — have a right to feel ridiculously happy right now.
There were some boos at the Eagles game, of course — though not as loud as in the doctored video that circulated in right-wing circles. It would have been weird if she hadn’t been booed by the Eagles’ notoriously pugnacious fans, who were already booing the Cowboys as Biden stepped on the field, and who famously once booed Santa Claus and pelted him with snowballs.
Plus, Biden took the jeers in stride. She wasn’t in a glass-walled box. She stood in the stands in her Eagles shirt drinking a beer, eating a pretzel, wrapping herself in an Eagles blanket when it got cold and taking selfies with people in her section. It was on her insistence that the entire White House contingent stayed for the entire game — with the Secret Service whisking them off just four minutes before the end to avoid traffic congestion, according to Valdivia.
Whatever her reception, this has all been “a net positive” for Biden, says Lauren A. Wright, a political scientist at Princeton University who has studied first ladies. The embrace of sports has allowed Biden to remind Americans of her working-class “Philly girl” backstory.
Going to the Eagles game wasn’t overtly political (the people who sang the fight song on the field with her that night were cancer survivors, there to promote early detection), but it also wasn’t apolitical.
She was walking onto an NFL field before a politically mixed audience on national television — broad reach, potentially hostile reception. And her home state just so happens to be the site of one of the tightest and most important Senate races in the country, with Democratic former Lt. Gov. John Fetterman in a crudite battle to the death with Republican TV doctor Mehmet Oz. (President Biden flew to Pennsylvania on Thursday to campaign for Fetterman.)
“Anytime the Bidens can be there in a positive context, those are all winning opportunities,” says Wright, “and there aren’t many of those with a Democrat in the White House with an economy most people are very worried about.”
Watching the Phillies on her plane and going to the Eagles game were top priorities for Biden, according to Valdivia — things she really wanted to squeeze in that weekend during a breakneck schedule of 15 events over five days in five states that included Democratic campaign stops, an overnight stay at the Fort Benning Army post in Georgia and two impromptu drop-ins to at local coffee shops.
Most of her events centered on Biden’s core issues of education, covid relief, cancer and supporting military families. They also just so happened — surprise! — to take place in four states where Democrats are facing uphill battles: Wisconsin, Georgia, Florida, Pennsylvania. In Atlanta, she stumped for Stacey Abrams. In Orlando, she went to the mat for Rep. Val Demings and former congressman Charlie Crist, respectively trying to take down Sen. Marco Rubio and Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Campaign blitzes like this are common for first ladies “who are willing to do the work,” says Wright. Both Laura Bush and Michelle Obama were fundraising powerhouses, and Wright’s own research for her book, “On Behalf of the President: Presidential Spouses and White House Communications Strategy Today” showed that 18 percent of Laura Bush’s speeches and nearly 30 percent of Michelle Obama’s were made on the campaign trail. (Melania Trump was a notable exception, and rarely campaigned.) It’s simply what political spouses do.
Joe Biden’s strength was relating to the public “until he became the most powerful man in the world,” says Katherine Jellison, a professor of women’s history at Ohio University. Jill Biden, on the other hand, has plenty of relatable entry points. She’s a working woman, a wife and a mother who’s experienced tragedy. “She really has a ‘Jill from the Block’ persona and I think now is an effective time for her to put that to use for Democratic candidates,” Jellison says. It might only help at the margins, “but with the margins so close right now, I assume that any vote she can pry at the margins is a good thing.”
She’s also the only first lady in history to keep her full-time job — an English composition professor at Northern Virginia Community College — which also makes her the only person in the administration who’s out there, two days a week, forming bonds with the kinds of Americans without four-year degrees that Democrats are trying to reach, like the immigrants, single moms and military veterans that Biden often talks about teaching.
It’s her Philly roots, though, that seem to have the most currency in this time when the spotlight of the sports world focuses on Philadelphia. Being one of five girls from the city’s working-class suburbs isn’t just a biographical fact about Jill Biden, it’s become a political personality trait.
She’s the kid who punched her sister’s bully in the face and got an “atta girl” from her bank teller dad for it, as she wrote in her memoir. She’s the teenager who would run across a highway in the dead of night with her friends to break into a swimming pool where her family couldn’t afford the membership. This is a woman who responded, “I’m a good Philly girl,” after body blocking her husband from lunging vegan activists at one of Joe Biden’s rallies in 2016.
Recently, the president told CNN’s Jake Tapper that it’s essentially in his marriage vows that he root for the Phillies in the playoffs. “If I weren’t, I’d be sleeping alone,” he said. “I married a Philly girl.”
The first World Series game starts tonight at 8:03 p.m. A close, seven-game series would end the Saturday before Election Day. That’s plenty of chances for Jill Biden to try to unify America.